Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is already building an aggressive campaign machine for the 2012 Senate elections, promising to push his party further to the right, despite angering many in the GOP establishment with his political activities last year.
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund wants to rake in a staggering $15 million, which is nearly $6 million more than in 2010 when his political action committee raised more money than any other politician’s PAC.
DeMint is now renting a Capitol Hill townhouse for his political operation — just a few blocks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm for Senate Republicans. And unlike the NRSC, which plans to stay out of contested primaries, DeMint is prepared to be an active force, jumping into intraparty battles by pushing conservative candidates against moderate Republicans.
The buildup is the latest sign that DeMint has become the pre-eminent conservative political activist in the Senate, and he plans to push candidates whose ideological views align with his and the tea party movement’s — even if it sets up a major clash with the NRSC, which always looks for the most electable prospect.
Last year, DeMint had mixed success with his endorsements, helping some like Florida’s Marco Rubio win office but also getting behind some who cost the party a seat, like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell.
In this election cycle, the South Carolina conservative has taken a more hands-on role in the operation, hiring staff, making phone calls for donations, holding fundraisers and meeting with scores of prospective candidates at the Capitol Hill base for his political operations.
DeMint told POLITICO his fundraising goal is a “big hill to climb, but that’s what we’re going to try to do.” And he said he wants to play a “complementary role” to the NRSC and avoid the kind of internal clashes that played out last election cycle.
But his move to a Capitol Hill townhouse is also an acknowledgment that his PAC — which launched in mid-2008 — has grown so rapidly that DeMint now needs to take extra precautions to wall off his political operations from his legislative office. Now his former legislative director, Matt Hoskins, is working full time for the Senate Conservatives Fund after working in a dual legislative and political role last cycle.
“We’ve got to make sure we do all that right,” he said, adding that it operated mostly out of “garages” in the past.
The PAC spent more than $23,000 just on office furniture in December and January, and the monthly rent for the townhouse is $4,700, according to Federal Election Commission records.
DeMint’s PAC has spent heavily so far this year on mailing lists, consultants and costs associated with setting up its own Capitol Hill office, according to campaign finance records. The Senate Conservatives Fund also shelled out $14,000 in January to rent a mailing list from Newsmax, a conservative publication based in Florida, plus an additional $15,600 on direct mail, FEC records show.
The Senate Conservatives Fund acts as a conduit by raising money — mainly through costly direct mail — for conservative Republican candidates, then funneling money directly to them or spending it on their behalf as an independent expenditure.
In the first two months of this year, the Senate Conservatives Fund raised an additional $500,000 — far more than it did in a similar period in 2009 — and there are signs that it will only continue to grow. Nearly 90 percent of prospective candidates across the country have sought meetings with DeMint, knowing that his endorsement would play well with conservative activists who are involved in Senate primaries.
To win DeMint’s endorsement, candidates are asked to fill out a questionnaire to see whether they are sufficiently conservative on issues ranging from earmarks to Social Security.
The biggest factor for DeMint, he said, is to “follow the grass roots” to determine which candidates are backed by his activist base. He has not yet decided which races to jump in to.
“We’re not going to go in and try to anoint candidates,” he said. “But hopefully, at some point, we’ll be invited in by the grass roots.”
This year, DeMint says he’s not trying to compete with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the NRSC. And both committees appear eager to avoid the same sort of collision course that prompted a nasty round of finger-pointing last November, when the GOP fell four seats short of winning control of the Senate, despite significantly narrowing the Democratic majority.